Time is wealth: Part-time work as a means to foster sustainable lifestyles?

time wheels
© shutterstock, gualtiero boffi

Under which circumstances does a reduction of working time lead to a more sufficient lifestyle? How does a reduction of working hours affect employees’ well-being? What implications do flexible working models have for employers? And which economic, legal, and political framework conditions must be taken into consideration? The research project “Time is wealth: Part-time work as a means to foster sustainable lifestyles?” aims to provide in-depth insights into these and further questions.

Closing a research gap

The reduction of working hours is increasingly being put forward in the debate on how to foster society’s transformation to sustainability. Indeed, evidence shows that it might facilitate more sufficient lifestyles: Macro-level studies in various countries have established links between shorter working hours and a lower environmental impact. However, very few empirical studies so far have examined the connections between the following factors:

  • The amount of working hours
  • Consumption patterns and their impacts on the environment
  • Individual well-being

The project intends to close this research gap. Using different methodological approaches, it explores to what extent a self-determined reduction of working hours can help to reduce consumption-related environmental impact in the Swiss context – while maintaining or even increasing employees’ (subjective) well-being.

Most important results

Working less usually means earning less income, but having more time that is not bound up by gainful employment. Previous studies have assumed that the corresponding income effect – i.e. earning less – would have positive consumption-related impacts on the environment. However, these are sometimes offset by the negative environmental impacts of increased leisure activities.

Project interviews with people who reduced their working hours showed that environmentally friendly lifestyle changes were more likely when newly acquired time was used for previously planned activities, e.g. for parenting, continuing education, or social engagement. By contrast, increased consumption was more likely among those who decreased their working hours primarily to reduce stress and to gain more free time.

Source: Hanbury et al. 2019

Lower income – more sufficient lifestyles

So how do the consumption patterns of part-time and full-time workers differ? A large-scale study conducted in the project confirmed the importance of the income effect: employees who worked fewer hours displayed more sufficient lifestyles according to various indicators. These indicators – such as spending on clothing, home size, frequency of air travel, and extent of vehicle use – could mainly be explained by these participants’ lower incomes.

Part-time workers also commuted less by car – not because of their lower income, but rather thanks to having more free time.

The study further shed light on what changes when people reduce their working hours. Indicators of well-being – especially life satisfaction in the short term, but also stress-related burnout symptoms in the short and medium term – improved following a reduction in working hours. The study also showed that these participants’ car commuting times decreased while their environmentally friendly behaviour increased – two indicators that can be attributed to a time effect rather than an income effect. Meanwhile, consumption-oriented spending on clothing declined as a result of lowered earnings.

Less car commuting – greater well-being

Despite participants’ working time reduction, a variety of other environmentally crucial indicators remained stable over the study’s nine-month observation period, in particular general vehicle use, air travel, and home size. This suggests that such structurally determined behaviours are relatively fixed and that possible impacts of working less may only emerge over a longer period.

The positive effect of reduced car use is interesting, however. Not only was it associated with decreased environmental impacts, but it could also be a measure to increase well-being. Last but not least, the study results showed that many people desire to work less.

Based on a comprehensive literature review and conceptual work, the project considered the implications of reducing working hours in Switzerland.

  • The project’s first key finding is that the ecological, social, and economic effects of reduced working hours must be carefully assessed and compromises must be found. One way of balancing the social and ecological impacts of reduced working hours would be providing progressive wage compensation. In this way, lower-income workers would not suffer additional wage losses. Instead, the measure would particularly target those in high-income brackets, who tend to have the worst ecological footprints.
Source: Bader et al. 2020


  • The project’s second key finding is: There are many possible accompanying measures that could lead to a reduced standard workweek in the long run, building on the engagement of various actors.
  • Finally, the third key finding is that the economic feasibility of reduced working hours represents a major sticking point and one of the biggest concerns among various stakeholders.

The project succeeded in identifying initial action strategies for the concrete design and economic feasibility of a workweek reduction, but could not provide conclusive answers. There is significant need for more research in this area, as echoed by a variety of actors with whom the results were discussed.

In a corresponding literature review, the ecological, social, and economic impacts of different forms of work reduction are examined.

Researchers from the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern have studied the impact of reduced working hours on employees at the GZO Spital Wetzikon, a hospital in the canton of Zurich. The hospital introduced a new working time model for some of its staff at the start of June 2022. The model focused on nurses working early, late, and night shifts and reduced their weekly working hours by 10 per cent with full pay.  

To track the impact of the new working time model on employee experience, evaluation, and behaviour, the researchers used a longitudinal survey design with a control group (known as a quasi-experimental design). 

Employees were surveyed at three points in time using an online questionnaire. The results show measurable improvements in health, well-being, and satisfaction with working conditions for the employees involved in the new model, compared to the control group. However, the analyses do not indicate any changes in environmental behaviour.

The results suggest that reducing working hours can be an effective way of at least partially easing the burden on staff and improving working conditions, thus addressing the shortage of skilled labour.

However, reducing working hours alone will not alleviate the precarious situation in Switzerland’s care sector. Rather, it should be seen as one measure in a possible package of measures to improve the day-to-day attractiveness of work for staff in a way that is sustainable for companies.

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